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What Determines Inkjet Print Quality?

What determines inkjet print quality? This is a complex question that can’t be answered simply by looking at the device’s published spec sheet. Many machine manufacturers tout ever-higher printhead resolutions and build a lot of sales rhetoric around inkjet print quality. Yes, resolution is a factor, but it’s only part of the print quality equation.

Printing Resolution

The discussion gets even more confusing if you try to compare inkjet printheads to traditional offset printing. Comparing traditional line mesh or lines per inch (LPI) to the nozzles per inch (NPI) of an inkjet printhead is inaccurate. The printheads on the inkjet devices used today are either staggered together or have a much higher measurement than traditional LPI, resulting in a higher number of nozzles per inch measurement.

Any discussion of inkjet print quality must include a combination of resolution, minimum and maximum drop sizes, dots per drop (DPD), grayscale and the number of bits per pixel that can be processed by the printhead itself. Actual printhead performance is a sizeable part of printhead health, with nozzles, satellite control, waveforms, and cross-process density playing a big role in controlling the uniformity and placement of every drop of ink.

Ink

Then there’s the ink. The ink chemistry itself and its compatibility with the printhead, each color’s compatibility with other process colors, colorant type, colorant loading, wetting capabilities, and proper jetting, drying, or curing requirements all affect quality.

Substrate Type Affecting Print Quality

Of course, you can’t evaluate a device’s print quality without printing something. Therefore, the substrate and ink must also have a certain range of compatibility. The substrate may require pre-treatment or primer to control surface tension to keep the colorant on and adhere to the surface (proper wetting and controlled absorption, drying and curing.) Proper adjustment of each primary color and above always needs to be determined All TACs to avoid spotting, wicking, coalescence, punch-through, curling, wrinkling, sticking and drying/curing issues.

Substrate Movement

In addition to the type of substrate to consider, there is also substrate movement. This is an important distinction in equipment, but one that isn’t always given the consideration it deserves. Controlling the motion of the substrate as it moves beneath the printhead is just as important as the printhead itself. Registration, repeatability, timing, and head-to-substrate distance can greatly affect droplet size and spray pattern, which can produce an uneven appearance if not set up properly.

Raster Image Processor (RIP) Relating to Inkjet Print Quality

Another very important aspect is the Raster Image Processor (RIP). The RIP, or front end, is really the beginning of a highly complex process of handling the machine, printhead, ink, and substrate. RIP is the exact conversion of a file into a resolution-specific dither pattern and color plane that the print engine will send to each printhead. Each color plane communicates with the print engine when and where the printhead should drop a drop and what volume each drop should have.

All of the above items will determine the final print quality, but will also affect overall color quality. Proper color management depends on the long list of variables mentioned above, determining the maximum process color chromaticity, and the total TAC when combining all colors to create a reproducible color gamut for that machine, printhead, ink, and substrate.

We now know that discussing inkjet print quality requires looking beyond resolution to a deeper understanding of the many components that make up inkjet technology and their overall performance on a specific substrate.

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